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Mantle’s Job _ To Be A Hero

August 13, 1995 GMT

To a generation or two, for a decade or two, he was everything the rest of us ever wanted to be. He was power and speed and toughness and grace pressed between pinstripes, and he was brave and courteous and handsome besides.

For a while, Mickey Mantle was all of those things. And at the same time, we would come to find out, he was a whole lot of other, darker things as well. In that sense, he was like the rest of us all along. Mantle’s saving grace was that perspective found him before death did, afforded him one last chance to be a hero, to deliver in the clutch.

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For all the other things he accomplished, that may have been his toughest at-bat. He did not flinch. That was what made him Mickey Mantle.

Play like me, he said at the time. ``Don’t be like me.″

To almost anyone under the age of 40, the worship Mantle once inspired is difficult to comprehend. Most of them think he is a baby-boomer’s indulgence because they came to know him nearer to the end of his life than the beginning, when introspection and all that hard living had already etched the deep lines into his face and made his voice sound small and pitiable.

They know Mantle only as somebody who was a pretty good baseball player once, who used up one liver and then somehow jumped to the front of a line of people waiting for a second one. The playing fields today are littered with guys who squandered talent, then made it back to their feet in time to find a second career trading on fleeting celebrity at card shows.

What was so special about Mantle, they wanted to know? What was worth celebrating about someone like that?

The answer: That is only half of his story. Heroes aren’t what they used to be. And most especially not what they could still be during Mantle’s salad days.

Back then, television fired the imagination instead of limiting it. Back then, New York was the center of the universe. Back then, the nation that lived beyond the Hudson River still wanted to believe that the Yankees could be beat, that the next time they came to town was going to turn out better than the last one. Back then, sportswriters were lap dogs, not pit bulls, more intent on cultivating heroes than biting them. That was their job.

And back then, this was Mantle’s job: To be a hero.

He was almost singularly created for the task. Mutt Mantle named his son after his own baseball hero, Mickey Cochrane, and came home after working in the Oklahoma coal mines each day and worked his son out on a hardscrabble diamond behind the house each night until dusk.

He taught his son to hit from both sides of the plate, foreseeing the day when specialization would become all the rage in baseball. And he taught him desire by holding out his own hard life and job as an example of the price of failure. Then Mutt turned Mick loose.

The rest is pretty well known. From the start, Mantle hit the ball as far as anyone and he could run one down faster than all of them. He debuted in New York in 1951, when baseball was practically a religion, and his blend of strength and speed made anything on the diamond seem possible.

Four years into his career, he won his first home run crown. The year after that, he won a Triple Crown. The bigger the stage, the better he seemingly performed. The Yankees appeared in a dozen World Series in 14 years and Mantle, always in the spotlight, fashioned one of the most impressive marks ever assembled in the postseason.

Yet even as Mantle was just starting out, when it was still possible to close your eyes and think he might stay young and strong and blond forever, he was already starting to come apart. His baseball pants covered bandages that stretched from his ankles to mid-thigh, a few dollars’ worth of wrapping holding together a million-dollar talent. The sportswriters covered up everything else _ the drinking, the carousing, the self-destructive swath he and Billy and Whitey and a host of other Yankees carved across New York and every other town on the baseball circuit.

Time, as it always does, eventually found him out. The disclosures of alcoholism and a family neglected shrunk his fame and his reputation shriveled to the point where a generation thinks of him today as a cautionary tale and not much else. He was as bewildered by the turn of events as anyone.

``If I’d known I was going to live this long,″ he was fond of saying, ``I’d have taken better care of myself.″

So would we all. But because of him, a few of us might.